I have a confession, one that honestly seems to be a little taboo in this photographic world of “professional versus hobbyist” that we seem to have created. My confession is this: I am a part-time photographer. But there’s a good chance you are too, and that’s okay. We’re okay.
Photography is just like other artistic pursuits in that we tend to think that people who are making a successful living doing it have “made it” and those that haven’t are somehow failing. It’s not something we always say out loud (though Facebook groups, forums, and comment sections certainly give people all sorts of bravery to say awful things that they normally might not), and it might not even be something that we consciously think, but the stigma is there all the same. The mindset is expressed in the way we often find ourselves attempting to both explain and justify our part-time status, “Well I mean this isn’t my full-time job, but I want it to be. I’m just waiting for the right time to make the move.” Or “there just aren’t a lot of gigs out there right now.” Or “I do some things here and there, some families, weddings, and senior pictures; I’ve thought about getting a studio, but don’t know if I can justify the cost.” You probably recognize these or whatever the line is that you have found yourself repeating because you feel like you need to defend yourself and how you live your life.
It’s a very American thing, this equating of “job” with “worth”, and “title” with “competency.” It’s one of the very first things we ask people when we meet them: “So, what do you do?” It’s why, when I’m asked that question, I can never give a consistent answer. “I’m a photographer,” I sometimes say. Or, “I’m the director of marketing for a company that makes clear car floor mats,” I say the other half of the time. Both are true but both are, in their own way, a source of shame for me. With my creative friends, I feel the need to defend my photography and the fact that I don’t support myself with it full time. I feel the temptation to downplay my marketing gig as something I do to “make sure the bills get paid” or “for the insurance,” when the truth is I actually really like my job and I’m very happy there. With my corporate friends, I feel the need to legitimize my work as a photographer, while simultaneously explain why, if I love it so much and feel so passionate about it, I’m not doing it full-time.
I got into photography on a whim. I don’t have some flowery bio on my website about how I was “born with a camera in my hands” and how I’ve “always had a passion for capturing the beautiful moments in life,” because those aren’t true. I’ve always enjoyed taking photos, sure. My first camera was the one on my Palm Pilot Zire 71, 640x480 pixels of glorious digital goodness! My next camera was a Lumix point-and-shoot, and eventually, I bought a Nikon N80, checked out some books about photography from the library, shot a couple of rolls, couldn’t figure out why everything was dark, put the N80 back in its box, and that was that. I didn’t touch a camera again until my freshman year of college, when a buddy asked if I wanted to take photos for the school newspaper and offered to teach me how to use a camera. I knew that journalists got to go places that normal people didn’t, and that was good enough for me. I changed my major to journalism, bought my first digital camera (a Nikon D60, it came with two lenses so I could shoot everything), and I was off to the races. I very quickly learned that I really enjoyed shooting sports in particular. I had been an athlete in high school, so this wasn’t too surprising, but I also found that I wasn’t all that bad at it.
No, that photo isn’t perfect, but it was one of the first basketball games I ever shot with the aforementioned D60 and kit lens. I started posting my photos on a local photo forum, and starting getting critique from some more seasoned shooters that I really took to heart and used to improve my work. I won’t bore you with all the details (it’s not like this article is already painfully long or anything, right?), but over the next few years, I would continue shooting, get an internship with one of the largest papers in the country, start shooting professional sports, and get published multiple times in Sports Illustrated, ESPN Magazine, etc. I got to shoot J.J. Watt and Johnny Manziel. I got to shoot ringside at multiple UFC pay-per-views and discover that when you sit that close, you are definitely getting some blood on you.
Pretty cool, right? It absolutely was. The pay wasn’t great and the hours were grueling, but damn, it was a cool job. Then came my senior year of school, where I was faced with some realities and some choices. I was about to graduate and had just gotten engaged and was trying to figure out if photojournalism was actually how I wanted to spend my life. It’s a lot of fun until you start thinking about how going to shoot that wildfire at 3 a.m. means you’re leaving your wife at home, or that that NFL game on Sunday will have you gone for pretty much the entire day. The editor at my newspaper had offered to extend my internship a second semester and I was also on the shortlist for a paid internship at a good paper in the Midwest, but I couldn’t stop thinking about all the conversations I had had with some of the top photographers in the field about how newspapers and photojournalism specifically were on their way out. Jobs that used to be held for a lifetime were now in jeopardy, and the old process of young shooters interning, then stringing, then becoming staffers, then becoming editors, etc. was now over and there was no longer any movement and therefore, no longer any jobs. I made the decision to keep shooting, but focus on a career in marketing via some other opportunities that were also coming up at the time.
These days I'm shooting less of this.
And more of this.
I tell you all of that to make this point: I was a professional photographer. I am a professional photographer. Right now, I’m shooting more corporate events than sporting ones and I’m shooting more family portraits than editorial, but I’m still shooting, and I’m still a photographer. I’m going about it this way because that’s what I chose, not because I am a failure with a camera or as a businessman. My shoots are no longer glamorous; there are no million-dollar athletes and I no longer have the best seat in the house for all the big games. Last month, I spent eight hours on a Saturday photographing pee-wee football team photos in a humid gym. And you know what? I’m fine with that. I still feel some sort of guilt when I read articles from other photographers that explain why I’m a failure or how I’m just making excuses for not advancing my career, but for the most part, I just shake those off. This is who I am right now, and it’s because I chose it, not because I’m lazy or scared or don’t have enough passion.
So, what's your part-time? Do you have a cubicle job by day and photos whenever you have time? Do you do weddings on the side? Maybe you shoot exclusively straight iPhone shots on Instagram and you do it because you enjoy it. Whatever it is, it's you, it's good, and don't ever let anyone make you feel differently.
I'm part-time, so are you, and that’s okay.